July 13, 2013

The Zimmerman trial, POC and seeing “color”

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:31 am by chavalah

Chicago protest in memory of Trayvon Martin, March 2012

Chicago protest in memory of Trayvon Martin, March 2012

It’s arguably been a pretty seminal week concerning race relations in the United States, where the long-debated case concerning the killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin has finally reached the courtroom. The fate of perpetrator George Zimmerman–along with whether he’ll be legally painted as defending himself against a thuggish attack, or racially profiling, stalking and murdering his victim–will be decided soon.

Complicating this matter, at least among advocates of minority rights, is that Zimmerman sent just your standard, privileged white man–he’s Hispanic. (He’s also been “accused” of being Jewish due to his Germanic surname, but he’s not.) His allies can use this as proof of the fact that that he can’t be racist, while others are reminded of the discomforting fact we non “WASP” people–or even the subculture of “brown” folk–are not a monolithic group standing in proud solidarity.

I’ve recently come across the term “white passing,” which is used to define people who are minorities by heritage but “pass” enough in the white world to gain some privilege. It’s a reality for many Ashkenazi and even some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (in the United States, anyway). It’s arguably the reality for Zimmerman when he casts himself as the victim of a “thuggish attack.” He blends in with the “white-coded,” affluent, gated Florida community and African American Martin is the threatening outsider.

The question of race is pernicious, as if Zimmerman’s identity as Hispanic, white or anything else has merit when it comes to his crime. As an American Jew, I often want the idea of “race” to go away. It’s been used by both Conservatives and Liberals to paint my people as either the thuggish outsiders or the privileged and overly powerful insiders, depending on the biases of the accusers. The Nazis turned antisemitism into the “race” card so they could use pseudo-science to prove that we were inferior. (As an interfaith Jew, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how patrilineal descent, eg genetics, denies many of my people a place in the Tribe). Europe has almost never extended “white privilege” to the Jews (Arab nations were nominally better with the Jews in their territories,) making the creation of Israel a necessity. So I guess it comes down to whether or not we are a “race,” we are definitely our own people for many reasons.

And anyway, I can’t throw race out with the bath water when it comes to “people of color.” It is important to see race, as well as ethnicity in order to realize that we live in a multicultural and diverse world. When white people “don’t see color,” they often don’t notice some disturbing trends, like the dearth of people of color in pop culture media.

A couple of weeks ago, actor Pedro Pascal was cast as Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martel of Dorne in season four of Game of Thrones. Dorne has often been “coded POC” by ASOIAF fans who are interested in cultural diversity, given some of the author’s depictions of character skin tones (he pictured Indian American actress Janina Gavankar as one of them,) and world building aspects that sets this kingdom a little bit apart from the rest of Westeros. Some fans analyze that Dorne was influenced by diversely populated Moorish Spain.

Several of these fans immediately criticized production for not finding a darker skinned actor than the light-skinned Pascal, which brings into question again the issue of “race” vs ethnicity (no matter his skin tone, Pascal is one of very few Latinos in the show). Other fans, particularly in GoT’s considerable international community, immediately started criticizing Americans for our “obsession” with promoting the idea of POC. Why not just focus on good acting, even if most of the people who show up to auditions all look the same? This, of course, is the height of privilege, where you can ignore, through whitewashed pop media, that the majority of the world is excluded and made into the Other. That being said, race and skin tone is only one factor of multiculturalism, as obviously Pascal brings something different to the table than the majority Irish and English cast. Certainly fans from his native Chile must be proud!

Identity–if you’ll pardon the pun–is not black and white. “Seeing color” and not whitewashing the world will always be important; there are also plenty of “white passing” people with varied and diverse heritages and histories of being persecuted. We all come with our own sets of biases, too, but hopefully we can challenge ourselves on the personal level to try and overcome, not give into them like George Zimmerman did.

My thoughts and prayers are with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends; may you find justice soon. Baruch HaShem.

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